1936 Redux?

Written on October 30, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in International Relations

Rolf Strøm-Olsen

So long-suffering Democrats across the United States, not to mention the majority of citizens elsewhere across the globe, are anticipating the sweet savour of victory in next month’s upcoming, as Obama is poised to sweep to a crushing win over his opponent. (Although, after the defeat in 2004 of John Kerry, many US democrats are hesitant to say anything out loud in a kind of collective scaramanzia.) I have been looking at other US electoral results to see what, if any, precedent exists for the potential scale of victory about to be sealed by Barak Obama and the Democratic party.

There have been, surprisingly, quite a few lop-sided presidential victories over the last generation. Ronald Reagan’s reëlection in 1984 was huge: almost 20 points over gormless Walter Mondale – double his 10 point win over the gormless Jimmy Carter in 1980. In 1972, Nixon walloped George McGovern by 61 to 38%, which is about the same margin of victory racked up by Lyndon Johnson over arch-conservative ideologue Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Those are all impressive and unequivocal victories, even if in certain cases the victories were probably more lop-sided than they should have been. LBJ’s 1964 victory, for example, was propelled by the 1963 assassination of Jack Kennedy. And 1972, which was an election that Richard Nixon was going to win under any circumstances, the Democrats decided to wrap it up nicely and neatly for him by putting forth an opponent who was so out of step with national viewpoints that the public’s perception of him was worse than George Bush’s are right now. That’s an impressive feat of failure by any measure.    

However, these earlier lopsided victories are missing what I expect might happen next week: a large-scale victory at the legislative level as well. Democrats are poised to take somewhere between 57 and 60 seats in the Senate (up from 51) and as many as 25 additional seats in the House of Representatives, which they already control.

Not since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 reëlection has either party had such an opportunity at overwhelming victory.

In many ways, it strikes me as very appropriate for the election of
2008 to bear parallels with either Roosevelt’s 1936 or 1932 electoral
victory. First, the recent debacle in world financial markets has made
brought all kinds of comparisons to the Great Depression of the 1930s.
That exaggerates the state of affairs, but the sense that the economy
is in a parlous state is pervasive – that could deliver marginal or
swing constituencies that ordinarily would be outside of Democratic
aspirations into their hands.

Second, the FDR presidency was widely seen at the time as a thorough
repudiation of earlier Republican policies. Historians have
subsequently challenged the easy delineation -FDR Good, Hoover Bad – that existed at the time and which remains in the popular imagination. (See, for example, Amity Shlaes new book on the Great Depression,  The Forgotten Man.) Justified or not, the seismic shift that took place in the political landscape as America sank into every deeper economic misery was undeniable. By the time the votes had been counted in 1936, the Democrats controlled 338 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives and in the Senate the Republican Party had been reduced to a mere twelve (12!) seats. Even accounting for the arch-conservative Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats), this still left FDR with an enormous majority for continuing his New Deal initiative

That was important because many provisions of FDR’s New Deal had been stymied during his first term by a determined right-wing faction of the US Supreme Court, known popularly as the Four Horsemen, who kept finding many parts of the New Deal unconstitutional. As a result of his massive win at the polls, FDR floated the idea of stacking the Supreme court in
order to ensure his legislative agenda passed constitutional challenge.
That turned out to be unnecessary, since the sheer scale of Roosevelt’s
victoryin the election was enough to turn the key swing vote on the court in favour of his program. 

The consequences for US domestic policy of FDR’s victory can hardly be overstated. The New Deal reshaped the American political landscape and changed fundamentally the role of government in people’s lives. Indeed, it was the repeal of one of the cornerstones of FDR’s reforms – the so-called Glass-Steagall Act – that will likely earn some or even much of the blame for this year’s rapid meltdown in the banking sector.

If 2008 is anything like 1936, it will be in the way that it provides a sweeping mandate across all legislative levels for comprehensive change to the role of government. Don’t say it out loud, but many Democrats are hoping for something like a new ‘New Deal’ that will resuscitate the image of a government laid out flat by the Bush years. 

Indeed, after eight years of some of the most irresponsible,
reckless, unthinking, foolhardy, and flat out incompetent government
the world has ever seen in recent memory it is reasonable that the
result should be a total repudiation of those policies, sorry,
"policies", and that the principles, sorry "principles", upon which
they stood should be thoroughly excised from the political arena. Let’s
hope it will have been worth the wait.


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